Editorial Columns

Domo Arigato, Jushin Thunder Liger – Farewell to a Puroresu Legend

Adam Van Winkle profiles Japan’s greatest junior heavyweight, Jushin Thunder Liger.

Recently, my social media was rightly flooded with Dustin Rhodes’ milestone accomplishment.

By wrestling on the January 1st, 2020, AEW Dynamite, Rhodes wrestled in his fifth decade (the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s).  Regular TWM readers will know I’ve shouted Rhodes’ praises loudly here for his longevity as a singular stalwart spanning my wrestling fandom.

But I was wrong there.  Yes, Rhodes is great and deserves the glory he’s been showered in this year in switching to AEW.  But he isn’t singular in wrestling across five decades. Four days later Jushin Liger matched him, wrestling his last NJPW match in his supposed farewell (never trust a wrestler retirement) January 5th at Wrestle Kingdom 14.  In doing so, he accomplished the same feat as Dustin Rhodes: he is a five-decade wrestler.

And how about this: his first match was roughly one month after Hulkamania was kickstarted.  Hulk Hogan won the WWF title from the Iron Sheik January 23, 1984, and Jushin Liger debuted March 3, 1984.

So, if, like most worldwide fans you came to wrestling in the Hogan pop culture explosion of the 1980s, Liger is the one wrestler that’s been wrestling major promotions for your entire fandom (no disrespect to the old school territory fans reading, but I think that’s the minority of fans now).  Think about the last time Hogan had a viable match, one that wasn’t a pure one-off, bad in-ring movement sideshow. I’m not sure when it was, but it was a long time ago now. But not Jushin Liger: he’s been in the ring and doing it with skill, the entire time.

Liger holds another special distinction.  The Monday Night Wars were arguably the most important element to the growth of wrestling fandom outside of Hulk Hogan.  It spawned the Attitude Era and Austin and Goldberg and the nWo and all that made the era great. That war started when WCW introduced its Monday Night Show in August of 1995.  Eric Bischoff knew that he wanted to launch the show as a distinct product from the WWE’s overly gimmicked version of pro wrestling. To show strong work rate and skill he decided to kick off the first-ever Monday Nitro with Brian Pillman taking on Jushin Liger.

And while the WWE did eventually win the Monday Night Wars, what made WCW the top promotion for a long time beyond the nWo was it’s awesome cruiserweight work rate.  Out of that cruiserweight division sprouted future WWE world champions Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, and Rey Mysterio. That division was largely made up of international stars and styles more closely associated with NJPW than the WWF/E.  Add to that the bright coloured-costuming and many masks of those cruiserweights, and you can argue that it was Jushin Liger who set that tone right away on Nitro.

He’s set quite a tone for the Junior Heavyweights in NJPW as well.  He’s won the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title an unprecedented 11 times.  The next most J-Crowns reigns? Tiger Mask and Kushida tie at 6 apiece. Liger’s J-Crown reigns span a staggering 2,245 days.  Second most? That’d be Fergal Devitt at less than half that with 1,010 days. Speaking of Finn, he and NJPW darling Will Ospreay tick in at only 3 J-Crown reigns a piece.

Aside from NJPW and WCW, Liger has wrestled in every major or semi-major promotion during his career save perhaps ECW: WWF/E (at two different events, 25 years apart), Ring of Honor, Total Non-stop Action/Impact, Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (the oldest continuous promotion in the world), Pro Wrestling Guerilla, and Pro Wrestling NOAH.  He’s held titles in nearly as many.

Here’s what makes Liger so much cooler than the aforementioned Hogan:  not only did Liger not linger uncomfortably as Hogan did (has), his last two matches at Wrestle Kingdom were fluid, well-wrestled matches.  Again, like Dustin Rhodes, Liger seems to have just gotten better and better with age. Unlike Hogan, Liger went out graciously as is the tradition, allowing himself to be pinned in his final two matches.  Hogan never took a pin graciously and oft-reversed booking that would have had him do so. I guess the point here is to say, he did all this in the last five decades with aplomb and class.

That’s a hell of an accomplishment for 35+ years in any profession, but especially the wrestling business.

I might be biased because I’ve not been exposed to Japanese media much.  Maybe Liger went through struggles of addiction and darkness similar to Dustin Rhodes or a plethora of others in the wrestling industry and I just didn’t see the coverage of it or internalize it.  But then again, growing up in rural America I didn’t really get access to American presses either and I still got all that rub.

Liger was remarkable for me right away.  The first time I saw him on WCW television, I assumed he was a cheap Power Ranger ripoff (I mean, WCW did have Arachnaman, a terrible Spider-Man ripoff).  Then he wrestled and all I knew was I wanted more of that style. I was so used to big men, and the deliberate and slow choreography of the wrestling of said big men of the 80s and early 90s, that whatever Liger was doing was downright amazing to me.  Those early days (1991-92), would influence a lot of my tastes and preferences in wrestling over the next five or six years.

Speaking of American Presses, the Wrestling Observer put Liger in their Hall of Fame 20 years ago, in 1999.  While he didn’t wrestle enough in the WWF/E to merit being in its superstar HoF, the WWE could make the same exception it has made for Bruiser Brody and others to make sure those who have left the biggest marks in the industry overall are in its Hall of Fame.

And it damn well better because I have a feeling in a few years time when the retrospectives and legacies have been written that will certainly be the story of Jushin Liger: he is one of wrestling’s giants, regardless of size.

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You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.

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